Life Coach vs. Therapist: What Are the Differences?

Coaching or therapy session with a young man

Do you enjoy working with people? Are you seeking a career that would enable you to support and motivate others? If so, you could consider becoming a life coach or a therapist. The role of a life coach is similar in some ways to that of a mental health therapist or psychologist. However, there are key differences between a life coach and a therapist.

As you explore this career guide, note the differences in educational and licensing requirements among these professions. While all these careers would provide opportunities for you to help others, you may find yourself gravitating toward a role as a life coach due to the less stringent employment requirements.

In This Article:

Understanding the Terms: Life Coach vs. Therapist

A mental health therapist is a healthcare professional who provides psychotherapy services. Clients may work with a therapist on a long-term basis. They meet with their therapists regularly, working to resolve their mental health issues and overcome related challenges.

A life coach is not a healthcare professional, although those working in this role may have an educational background in psychology, counseling or a related field. (There are no specific educational requirements.) States do not require life coaches to be licensed or certified, although they can choose to obtain a voluntary certificate or certification.1 The purpose of life coaching sessions is to empower clients to identify their life goals and make progress toward them.

The Objectives of a Life Coach vs. Therapist

There are significant differences between the objectives of a life coach vs. therapists, as well as between the focus of their sessions with clients. A therapist focuses on clients’ feelings and thought patterns. Therapy can enable clients to develop a greater understanding of how their past experiences and thought patterns influence their behaviors and emotions.

When comparing coaching vs. therapy, a therapist focuses on the reasons for a client’s behaviors and thought patterns, a life coach focuses on how their clients can overcome current problems. Life coaching may explore past experiences and emotional trauma to a limited extent. However, it will largely focus on how clients can change their current behaviors in order to build the lives they want for themselves.

It is also worth emphasizing that a mental health therapist is trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. In order to provide a diagnosis, mental health therapists must be cognizant of state licensure requirements to independently carry out this responsibility. These professionals frequently work with individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and similar challenges. While mental health therapists lack the authority to prescribe medications as psychiatrists do, they do provide mental health treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

A key difference between a therapist and a life coach is that a life coach cannot diagnose a mental health disorder. However, a life coach who believes that a client may be struggling with mental health issues can refer that person to a mental health therapist. A client may undergo both life coaching and therapy simultaneously for optimal results.

Past, Present and Future: The Orientation of Therapy vs. Coaching Sessions

Therapists often focus on their clients’ pasts. They explore issues such as how childhood trauma affects a patient’s current mental health. A therapist helps clients to understand and process the problems in their pasts and learn how to heal from them in order to create a healthier present. Mental health therapist work to help clients move past mental and behavioral health struggles, which may be rooted in the past even as they affect the present. Therapists can teach coping strategies and positive thought and behavioral patterns.

By contrast, life coaches do not typically encourage clients to explore the past. They focus on identifying what clients can do in the present in order to reach their goals. This is a future-oriented form of coaching that emphasizes progressing toward objectives.

A Typical Session With a Mental Health Therapist

Every therapy session proceeds a little differently, as each is customized to the client’s unique needs. In addition, mental health therapists conduct sessions preferences guided by the client’s treatment plan. Typically, the first therapy session primarily focuses on assessment and formulating a treatment plan.

Clients can expect to fill out health forms and provide basic background information. The therapist may spend time explaining their own academic background and areas of specialization and may encourage clients to ask questions about their expertise. The remainder of the first session allows the therapist and client to get better acquainted to build a therapeutic relationship.

This may, for example, involve conversations about favorite movies and books, as well as questions about the client’s mental health concerns. Clients may be asked about their mental and physical health symptoms, professional life, home life and relationships.  

During subsequent sessions, the mental health therapist and client begin to dive deeper into the client’s conscious and subconscious mind. They explore issues such as childhood bullying or other forms of trauma, substance use, insomnia or anything else that might concern the patient. The therapist can administer psychotherapy treatments, such as client-centered therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoanalytic therapy, all of which are designed to help the client develop coping skills and overcome mental health challenges.

What Clients Can Expect During a Session With a Life Coach

A similarity between coaching vs. therapy is that life coaching is intended to help and empower people. However, it achieves this goal in a different way. This difference is evident right from the first session.

Because life coaches are not healthcare professionals, clients are not usually asked about their health history unless their stated goal is to lose weight. However, they may be asked to fill out one or more questionnaires that request information about their background, aspirations and challenges. The life coach and client spend a little time getting to know each other.

Clients can expect to be asked questions about their current life situation and the direction they would like their life to go. For instance, many clients go to life coaches when they find themselves stuck or dissatisfied with their job or career path. Life coaches help clients identify their professional goals and develop strategies for reaching them.

Clients may have difficulties with issues such as time management, motivation, productivity or work-life balance. Just as a mental health therapist can help clients develop coping skills for issues like anxiety, life coaching can help clients develop strategies and self-improvement skills for overcoming the obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals.

Life Coach vs. Therapist: Comparing Provider-Client Relationships

The mental health therapist-client relationship tends to be a long-term one. It takes time for a therapist to build rapport with a client and to explore the innermost workings of their conscious and subconscious mind. Some clients may work with a mental health therapist for many years — perhaps for most of their lives.

A life coach may have a few clients who return periodically for additional coaching sessions. However, the majority of their clientele works with them on a short-term basis. Typically, a life coach works with the same client for as long as it takes that person to reach their objectives or to make significant progress toward them. Therefore, a difference in client-provider relationships between a therapist vs. a life coach includes the duration and depth of that relationship.

Differences in Reimbursement Models

Because a mental health therapist diagnoses and treats mental health disorders, their services are often covered by a client’s health insurance plan. This means that these mental health professionals must go through the process of becoming an authorized provider for an insurance network. Then, for each covered service provided, they must complete the insurance claims process in order to receive payment. Generally speaking, insurance companies will only reimburse services that are considered “medically necessary.” A service cannot be considered medically necessary unless there is an official mental health diagnosis, and counselors may be unable to make those official diagnoses.

A life coach is not a healthcare professional, and they do not diagnose or treat disorders; because of this, their services are not covered by insurance plans. Clients are required to pay for services as they are rendered, and life coaches do not work with insurance claims.

Differences in Academic Requirements and Professional Credentials

To be legally able to practice, mental health therapists must meet their state’s academic and professional licensure requirements. It’s typical for a therapist to need an accredited master’s degree in psychotherapy, along with a set number of hours in supervised clinical practice, in order to obtain licensure.2

By contrast, there are no strict requirements for individuals who aspire to become life coaches. However, it is typical for a life coach to have at least a bachelor’s degree and a life coaching-specific credential.1 These allow life coaches to establish their expertise and professional reputation.

Can a Life Coach Specialize in a Particular Area?

Just as mental health therapists may specialize in treating a certain set of mental health disorders, life coaches can specialize in one or more areas. One of the most common is executive life coaching, also known as leadership life coaching. These professionals work within organizations to coach executives and managers as well as promising individuals who may ascend to the executive level.

Other life coaching specialties include the following:

  • Relationship coaching
  • Health coaching (e.g., weight loss)
  • Wellness coaching (integrates mind, body and spirit)
  • Career development coaching (for employees and entrepreneurs at all levels)
  • Financial coaching
  • Parental coaching
  • Military and law enforcement coaching

What To Expect From a Life Coach Certificate Program

A graduate-level life coach certificate program is an ideal option for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a field such as psychology or counseling and wish to further focus their career path. This type of program builds upon the student’s existing knowledge base, teaching life coaching competencies such as conducting assessments, applying coaching strategies and using advanced cognitive theories.

The curriculum varies from one program to the next. In general, however, you may expect to examine specific topics such as the following:

  • Selecting a life coaching niche and developing a professional coaching plan
  • Using and interpreting client assessments
  • Coaching individuals using various models and techniques
  • Conducting executive coaching within an organizational setting

In addition, you can expect to explore the ethical principles and professional standards applicable to life coaching.

Do You Need a Life Coach Certification?

Life coaching is an unregulated industry, so there are no strict requirements for this career path.1 However, becoming certified provides opportunities to deepen your skill set and examine best practices in the field. If you intend to open your own practice, earning a certification may help you attract clients because doing so demonstrates your expertise and establishes your professional brand.

A number of professional organizations offer life coach certification programs. Some require extensive coursework, while others offer a quicker route to certification.

 A few of your certification options are as follows:

  • Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) — Certified Professional Coach (CPC) or Energy Leadership™ Index Master Practitioner (ELI-MP)
  • International Coaching Federation (ICF) — Associate Certified Coach (ACC), Professional Certified Coach (PCC) or Master Certified Coach (MCC)
  • Transformation Academy — Life Purpose Life Coach Certification

Some certification programs offer a specific focus, such as the health-focused life coaching credential offered by the Health Coach Institute. Regardless of which certification option you choose, the prior work you will have performed in your graduate-level certificate program can help you prepare to pursue this career.

Earn a Life Coaching Graduate Certificate From GCU

If you aspire to help others achieve their dreams, then you can acquire a firm academic foundation at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Graduate Certificate in Life Coaching program. It requires four eight-week courses for completion.

In addition, GCU offers a number of undergraduate and graduate psychology and counseling programs for aspiring therapists and counselors. Fill out the form on this page to speak with a university counselor who can help you find an academic program that fits your career goals.

Coursera. (2023, Nov. 29). Certified life coach: what it means and how to become one. Retrieved Dec. 19, 2023. 

Olivine, A., PhD, MPH. (2023, Aug. 19). How to choose between a counselor and a therapist. Very Well Health. Retrieved Dec. 19, 2023. 

Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Feb. 2, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.